Versace opens Paris fashion week

With 45 minutes to go before the Italian house of Versace will opened Paris haute couture week, one familiar element was missing backstage.

The supermodels were there including Naomi Campbell making a guest return to the catwalk at Donatella Versace's request; Diet Cokes were being sipped through straws so as not to smudge lipsticks; Donatella herself was, as always, nut-brown and vanilla-blonde, her tiny frame neatly wrapped in black, and one of her constant companions – Audrey the jack russell – is by her side.

But her other constant companion was conspicuous by its absence. After 30 years in which Donatella was accompanied by a packet of Marlboro Reds and a crystal-encrusted lighter, she gave up smoking two months ago. "For the first month and a half, I had no desire to smoke. Now, all of a sudden, I see someone with a cigarette, I want to steal it," she jokes. In fact, she seems calm and focused.

That Donatella has finally found the strength to kick the Marlboros seemed indicative of a new confidence within the house of Versace, which finds itself on a more solid footing than it has been since before the murder of Gianni in 1997.

The devastation wrought on this family-run business by that death was not just the loss of Gianni himself, but the destabilisation of his sister and closest collaborator, Donatella. Donatella shouldered her brother's roles and responsibilities as chief designer almost immediately after his death, but for a decade this was a company existing on a knife-edge. The psychological fragility of a woman who had channelled her grief into upholding the family name in her brother's honour made for a compelling narrative, but a shaky foundation for business. For all their toughness, the motorcycle leathers, gold studs and Medusa heads on the catwalk could never disguise the eggshell delicacy of Donatella's state of mind.

But last week the CEO, Gian Giacomo Ferraris, who joined from Jil Sander in 2009, indicated that the family was ready to take the brand to the next level, with the company close to selling a minority stake in order to fund further growth. (Donatella owns 20% of the company, her brother Santo 30%, and Donatella's daughter Allegra 50%.) In 2011, Versace returned to profit after successive years of losses. In 2012, net profits rose further by 7.6%. Although the brand remains materially small – smaller than its high profile would suggest – it is growing. Ferraris has said that the target of €500m (£428m) revenue, which had been set as a goal for the end of 2014, will be achieved much earlier.

(In 2012, revenue was €408.7m, a 20% increase on the previous year.) Global reach, a profitable focus on the younger lines, and a clampdown on counterfeiting have all helped make Versace a more serious player on the luxury stage.

Donatella's talent as a fashion designer is devastatingly simple. She wraps and engineers fabric around the female form in a way which makes sparks fly off the catwalk. This is an art form which is simultaneously old as the hills and daringly modern. A knee-length cocktail dress is entirely covered in tiny sequins, delicately hand embroidered so that they quiver over every curve, with a keyhole section in sheer net mesh revealing cleavage, and the full-length seam tracing the back view lined with large hook and eyes, to spell out rather than simply suggest the possibility of undress.

The hook and eyes, Donatella said before the show, were there to convey that "you can reveal a shoulder, a little of your back, it is up to you. To be able to do that, in a strict black dress: that is what makes the dress powerful".

The other interpretation of an external row of magnified hook and eye fastenings, of course, is that it invites an observer to feel that he (these dresses are, undoubtedly, designed for male eyes) can undo the dress. Versace wouldn't be Versace without this static electricity between the idea of a woman celebrating her sexuality and that of a woman advertising her sexuality.

The starting point for this collection was the black and white fashion photography of Horst and Man Ray. "What is extraordinary about those pictures is that they are perfect, in an era when there was no retouching," said Donatella. "The perfection comes from the lighting, and the make-up, and the hair and the clothes. All those things have to be perfect. And this seems releveant, because couture needs to be that impeccable." The crisp silhouettes and arch attitude of those fashion photographs found its way into the gowns and tailored suits on the catwalk, causing front-row guest Uma Thurman to exclaim after the show that it was "just wonderful - like real old-time glamour".

Haute couture shows are still a novelty for Donatella , who took a hiatus from this most elite branches of the fashion industry "during the big [financial] crisis, which hit everybody. I had to compromise. We didn't have the budget for a couture show so I made a choice to concentrate on ready to wear, and on expanding worldwide." Now that the business is healthy enough to fund a couture show, she has returned with "a more experimental feeling about couture. Couture will always be elitist for the customers, of course. But visually, it is not elitist at all. Everyone sees it. So it has to be relevant to the twenty first century. I feel passionate about that." Unfortunately, Donatella's willingness to experiment has not as yet emboldened her to ditch the bootcut trousers which she remains wedded to; but if the Marlboros can go, there is surely still hope on this front.

Campbell, who opened the show in a sequin tuxedo and closed it in a mink cardigan, was "an iconic woman for Gianni, and is an iconic woman for my Versace now," Donatella said. "I feel like today is an iconic moment for my Versace. Naomi has personality. She is a fighter. She is not shy about showing her power or using her power. And she is not afraid to take risks. That is why she is a Versace woman."

Powered by article was written by Jess Cartner-Morley in Paris, for The Guardian on Monday 1st July 2013 00.58 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Rob Innes